Jettisoning Rationalist Guilt

By Mike Koetting May 30, 2019

As even occasional readers of this blog know, I think of myself as a reasonable guy who, biases and predilections notwithstanding, tries to see both sides of most policy arguments.

So I am uncomfortable with my growing sense that Republicans have strayed so far from reasoned policy that they no longer deserve much benefit of the doubt. I understand this attitude is potentially bad for democracy. There is something inherently objectionable to me about broadly discounting most of what one of our major parties says. But, and I didn’t get here lightly, I think that is the point I have reached.

This is more than Donald Trump. It is a problem that started when Richard Nixon decided to create a power base for Republicans by wooing those populations left behind when Democrats, belatedly, started to take the position that the situation of blacks was inconsistent with the stated goals of the country.

Don’t rush past this. When Nixon systematically and explicitly worked to capture anti-integration sentiment for the Republican Party, it was more than a party re-alignment over segregationist policies. It was a willingness to tolerate rejection of the tectonic plate shift that happened in American society over the previous 50 years, a fundamental broadening of the terms of the American contract. In this new contract, both segregation and sexism were no longer negotiable. In offering itself up as a haven for objectors to the new contract, Republicans were arguing against the moral arc of the universe toward this broader concept of justice.

This was a winning strategy for Nixon, and, at first, for Republicans. But the country has embraced new realities. Certain attitudes that were once mainstream, are no longer accepted as compatible with a democratic society. When Republicans welcome those attitudes into their party, they push out some people who in the past would have been Republicans. Their departure forces Republicans to mine deeper into the darker veins of the American political psyche to remain competitive. Moreover, as the overall composition of the party shifts, it becomes more and more difficult for them to make compromises or tolerate party diversity.

This is not to say every Republican fits this description or fully embraces this strain of the party. Still, as the country changed, the Republican Party as a whole was forced to rely to ever greater degrees on a group of voters for whom hate was a part of their animus. The electoral consequences for Republicans of drawing a line that said: “No–those ideas are not consistent with the democratic goals of America” became steeper and steeper. Better to turn a blind eye.

All of this goes beyond saying that the country faces increasing polarization. That is true, but it skips over too much. That would establish a moral equivalency between my position and an equally sweeping rejection of Democrats by Republicans who are on the opposite sides of various issues from me. They are not equivalent. There is a qualitative difference because Republicans have been willing to support values that are explicitly anti-democratic. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and overt discrimination are explicitly anti-democratic. Wholesale attacks on the media or the courts are anti-democratic. Courting racists is anti-democratic. Countenancing unlimited economic inequality is anti-democratic. (Failure to allow a reasonable degree of inequality can become anti-democratic as well. But, at this juncture in America, there is absolutely no likelihood or traction for such positions, occasional Republican rhetoric aside.) At some point, quantitative differences became qualitative.

These anti-democratic impulses are not limited to isolated party members but are embraced by the core of the current party leadership as they struggle to maintain power as a minority party. Republican efforts on gerrymandering, for instance, have proceeded under their REDMAP strategy. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

REDMAP (short for Redistricting Majority Project) is a project of the Republican State Leadership Committee of the United States to increase Republican control of Congressional seats as well as state legislators, largely through determination of electoral district boundaries..…The strategy was focused on swing blue states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin where there was a Democratic majority but which they could swing towards Republican with appropriate redistricting. The project was launched in 2010 and estimated to have cost the Republican party around $30 million.

On top of this, there is voter suppression in many states—inconvenient polling places, new laws to restrict access and a variety of other mechanisms. And where voter suppression didn’t work, Republicans in gerrymandered legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina simply voted to restrict the powers of Democratic governors even though they had been elected by a majority of the state.

The smirking hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell’s position on confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year is another suggestion of Republican’s willingness to change the rules to suit their circumstances.

Donald Trump is the logical result of this. I don’t know enough about the details of American presidencies to pass absolute judgement on whether he is the sleaziest person to ever hold this office. But even many supporters admit he’s in the running. Either way, Donald Trump is as much a symptom of the Republican problem as a cause. The fact the GOP feels unwilling to restrain him reflects how tenuous their position has become. I believe a large part of the party knows that they are facilitating a demagogue with no moral compass. But having already convinced themselves that they were an embattled minority protecting the “true” American values, they don’t see any choice but to double down and support him regardless of how much he flaunts Congressional powers, denigrates people he doesn’t like, or reduces the ability to debate issues on merit.

One can hope that at some point, Republicans would see that their actions have become so extreme that they go beyond creating a hyper-partisan environment to in fact challenging the fundamentals of American democracy. I am not holding my breath. They are very far down the rabbit hole.

If there is a way out, it is for Democrats to simply out vote them and then govern in a fundamentally democratic way. I am not suggesting a “middle of the road” strategy. That may work. But it is not the essential point. As I have argued before, there is no evidence that today’s Republicans are interested in compromise. Rather, the essential point is to govern in a way that explicitly preserves the notions of the basic equality of human beings, individual freedoms and the rule of law. There will be arguments on how each of these is interpreted—one person’s individual freedom is someone else’s dangerous extremism—but if the disagreements can be carried out in a framework that is obviously pro-democratic, we may be able to reclaim our political system.

I know Republicans will argue that the founding fathers were very concerned that the majority might trample on the rights of the minority. From their perspective, whatever steps they take to preserve their minority rule are protecting their freedoms from an “over-reaching” majority. What they miss is that minority rights, like majority rights, are not absolute. Democracy requires a balancing of these two rights. Subverting the very mechanisms of that balancing is anti-democratic, no matter how dressed up.

In the end, as uncomfortable as it makes me, it seems necessary to face that the current Republican Party, as a party, is no longer a good faith participant in the American Democracy.

I find this worrisome because I do believe in democracy—with all its craziness. I know the commonweal is better represented when there is an appropriate give-and-take among different points of view. As partial compensation, I am going out of my way—and recommend you do the same—to consider ideas on a range of policies from those conservatives who are also committed to democracy. Even if I disagree with them on specifics, I recognize it as a disagreement among people who share the same basic commitment to our system of government.

But not only am I done with the Republican Party until it re-earns my trust, I’m done feeling guilty about it.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “Jettisoning Rationalist Guilt”



    1. I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I think there might be some better ways to think about this. In any event, I think all of this points out in technicolor that our way of appointing Supreme Court Justices is fairly nuts. Maybe we should focus on getting a more reasonable system.


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